He had one of the maids bring out glasses and bottles of chilled white wine. While the maid disappeared back into the mansion, he grabbed a bottle and uncorked it. As he poured two glasses of wine, Bethany peered at the label on the bottle.
“French,” she said approvingly. “You have excellent taste.”
Kirk handed her a glass. “I can’t take any credit for this. The staff purchases all this stuff on my behalf.”
She took a sip of the wine, moaning softly as she enjoyed the golden liquid. “When was the last time you bought something on your own?”
“You know the answer to that.” He gave her a sly smile.
“I do?” she asked, puzzled.
“The suit,” he reminded her. “I bought that all on my own. No staff or assistants required.”
She returned his smile. “Of course. How could I forget?” Bethany paused, the smile vanishing. “I’ll never forget, Kirk, how kind you’ve been to me.”
“My good fortune means it’s my job to pay it forward,” he explained. “Anyway, I knew how talented you were. Speaking of talent, I’ll be meeting with Jane Tanner this week.”
Jane’s excitement over Bethany’s designs at the wedding hadn’t dissipated, and she had sent him a message earlier today requesting a meeting in a few days.
“You are? That’s great,” she said. “Did she want me to come by as well?”
“For now, she wants any documents pertaining to the bank loan you were trying to get,” he said. “I’ve still got some forms and you have some others, so you can send those over to me. I don’t wait to raise false hopes in case this investment doesn’t pan out, but Jane does seem serious.”
What hurt him the most was the fact that he really thought Bethany could be a remarkable success. Despite her lies, Bethany’s talents were absolutely real. The part of him that cared for her actually wanted to see her succeed. Even now. After every lie she had ever told him.
Helping her get the loan might also have the added bonus of getting her to let her guard down. The more she trusted him, the more likely she was to confess the truth.
She stared down at her wine glass, her expression still troubled. “Thank you so much. For everything. Even if I don’t get this loan for my shop, I’ll always be grateful for what you’ve done for me. I had almost forgotten that there are good people in the world.”
Good people for you to manipulate, a caustic voice in his head snarked.
“Happy to remind you,” he forced out. “I guess a toast is in order.”
“I think we should toast to you,” she said, raising her glass. “For all your help.”
He raised his glass and watched as she slowly drained hers.
Hopefully one glass would be enough for her to let down her defenses.
“So, what are you plans now that you’ve made some extra money?” he asked.
“Well, I’m still looking for a job in case this loan doesn’t work out,” she answered. “I figured I could get work with a theater company or a ballet company. Maybe make the costumes for them. It’s not exactly what I wanted, but beggars can’t be choosers. Anyway, I’ll be out of your hair the minute I find work.”
“There’s no rush,” he murmured. “I don’t want you to feel pressured to take the first job you can find. It’s best to take your time to find what’s best for you.”
Bethany took the wine bottle from his hands and refilled her glass. “Kirk, I don’t know how to say this, but that sounds like something a rich person would say.”
He laughed sheepishly in spite of himself. “Guess you’re right. That doesn’t mean I can’t hope you find a workplace worthy of your talents.”
“Anyway, you did such a great job with the suit that I’ll probably hire you again in the future. And I’ll get the word out about your work. Plenty of people are going to want to hire you,” he said. “I hope that’s okay.”
“Of course it is.” She took a long sip of her wine. It was uncharacteristic of her to drink so fast. Which led him to believe she was either upset about something, or letting her guard down around him. Either way, he wasn’t going to waste this opportunity. “It’s just… sometimes I wonder if I’m being selfish with all my dreams. My family needs me and here I am in this fancy house, working on making my dreams come true. Meanwhile, they’re out there struggling.”
“I’m sure they want you to be happy,” he assured her. “Though, I wonder if they have certain expectations of you.”
“My father does,” she said.
Her father. His entire body tensed up. Bethany had mentioned her father before. Only, at the time, he’d had no idea she meant Lloyd Livingston. “What expectations does he have?” he asked, trying to appear far less detached than he felt.
She swirled the wine in her glass, a thoughtful expression on her lovely face. “He expects me to make up for everything my family has lost. To get my family back to where I know we’re supposed to be. My dad wants to take back everything that’s been taken from us. Which puts all these expectations on my shoulders. Way more than they are on anybody else in my family. It’s this huge weight, and I’m terrified that every day I’m making the wrong choices.”
“What exactly does he expect you to do?” Kirk leaned closer, desperate for her confession.
“There’s so much I haven’t told you,” she said. “Right now, I’m worried.”
“Worried about what?”
“Worried that it’s too late for me to get you to understand.” She swallowed hard.
“You can tell me,” he urged. “I’m here for you.”
The loud ringing of her phone cut him off.
She grabbed her phone from the pocket of her jeans and frowned. “Oh shoot, I have to take this. Give me a second?”
Before he could reply, she scurried off back inside the guesthouse.
Cursing under his breath, he drank straight from the wine bottle. This tension was wearing him down. Losing her right as she looked like she was ready to talk about her father was a major setback. Which meant he was being narrowed down to fewer and fewer choices. Now, it looked like his only remaining option was to dig for the truth about her on his own.
SHE CLOSED THE GUESTHOUSE door shut. “Dad?”
“Hello, sweetie,” her father said, his once-powerful voice now thin and distant. “How are you?”
“I’m fine.” She had spoken to him a few days ago, but hadn’t updated him on events at the wedding. Mostly because she was dreading it. Telling her father she’d slept with Kirk was out of the question, but her feelings for him were now undeniable. How was she going to explain to him that her feelings for Kirk had grown?
“The manager at the halfway house has given me some time to talk to you today. How did the wedding go?” he asked. “Discover anything new?”
“I met Kirk’s mom,” she said.
Her father inhaled audibly. “Did the scheming witch recognize you?”
“I don’t think so.” Feeling a little lightheaded from the wine, she walked across the living room to sink down into one of the sofas. “She seems more concerned with protecting her son from fortune hunters than anything else.”
“The irony,” her father said bitterly. “I suppose that harpy has learned to watch her back after knifing me in mine.”
It pained her to hear the anger in his voice. All they ever seemed to talk about was the Sterlings. She loved her father, and right now she wanted to hear about him. Not whatever he thought the Sterlings were up to. “That isn’t important now, Dad. You’re what’s most important. How are you?”
“Of course it’s important,” he growled. “I’ll never be at peace until the Sterlings get what they deserve. Until we get back what’s ours. That’s what really matters.”
She tucked her legs under her. “But I’m worried about you. I worry about all of you. You, Mom, and Joshua. Obsessing about the Sterlings can’t be good for your health.”
“Don’t worry about me, sweetheart,” he said. “Anyway, I do have some good news if you want to hear it.”
“I do want to hear it,” she said enthusiastically.
“We’ve located your mother,” he said. “She’s at an old friend’s house.”
The way he said old friend made her wonder if the friend was actually one of her mother’s low-down boyfriends. One of the losers she’d hitched her wagon to after her father went to prison and she started drinking herself into the gutter.
“Is she sober?” Bethany asked, terrified of the answer.
“She is for now,” her father said. “Which is great news. I even talked to her for a few minutes yesterday.”
“What? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I’m telling you now, aren’t I?” He sighed heavily. “Besides, I didn’t want to get your hopes up. She’s sober for now, but who knows how long it will last.”
“If she’s sober, that means there’s still a chance for you guys,” she said softly.
Her parents had never formally divorced, and while her mother had dated men while her father was in prison Bethany knew that her mother still loved him. They just had to find their way through the pain of the past ten years.
“Maybe. But I know that part of her actually believes I was capable of those terrible things. I’ve lost your mother’s trust. I have to regain that trust if our family is ever going to be put back together.” He sighed again. “It’s just that I sense you want to give up on our plan.”
She took a deep breath, holding it for a moment while she gathered her thoughts. “Not give up. I’ll never give up on you, Dad. I just think our plan might need adjusting.”
“I’m glad to hear that you’re not giving up,” he said, sounding relieved. “I was worried you’d forget about us now that you’re living in that mansion with Kirk Sterling.”
“I could never forget about you.” Guilt about her feelings for Kirk made hot tears sting the back of her eyes.
“Good. Your mother said that if you could prove that the Sterlings lied and set me up, she’d be ready to put the past behind her. Put it behind her and try again. Isn’t that wonderful? That’s why I’m counting on you, Bethany. You’re so clever. I just know you can save us. That information about SIB’s secret merger is going to prove to be very valuable. We need more information like that. Since you said our plan needs adjusting, is there any way for you to get close to some of Kirk’s rich associates? They must have a ton of secrets on the Sterlings.”
Pain gripped her. Giving up on their plan now meant that her mother would slip back into her old ways. Continue to drink herself to death while her father pined for the love that he had lost. It was like she was being torn in two, with Kirk on one side and her family on the other. Did the kindness of a good man outweigh her love for and loyalty to her family?
Telling her father about her feelings for Kirk now would be impossible. It would break her father’s heart and endanger her mother. An impossible risk she wasn’t going to take. Not now that they were all starting to come together again.
“Okay. I’ll work on getting more intel,” she said finally. “Kirk introduced me to some of his rich friends at the wedding, so that might be helpful.”
“Excellent,” her father said. “Just remember that the longer you’re around Kirk Sterling, the better things will be for our family. I’m sure being around him is terrible for you, but I want you to stay in his house for as long as you can.”
When she hung up, she brushed her tears aside. Her father had been wrong about one thing: Being with Kirk was wonderful. Absolutely wonderful. It was the secrets and the lies that were terrible.
And yet, she still had to warn Kirk somehow. Warn him about the trouble that was coming. If she couldn’t tell him the whole truth, then she’d find a way to warn him. Warn him, and protect him from what was coming.